Labour law changes and Unite's achievements

Labour law changes and Unite's achievements

By Mike Treen, Unite Union National Director

(Reprinted from The Daily Blog)

I am pleased about the government’s proposed changes to the Employment Relations Act.
These initial changes are mostly just reversing the reductions in rights for workers and unions made by the previous National government.

While these changes will make the unions job a little bit easier it will not significantly enhance workers power.
Changes that could potentially do that are planned for later this year and next year. The Labour Party has promised to reinstate the ability of unions to negotiate to end wage inequality for women and is looking at mechanisms to have minimum standards established for whole industries that have in the past ceased to be covered by union collective agreements. These are also potentially much more expensive and will threaten the “fiscal responsibility” rules the government has imposed on itself.

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Unite launched the SupersizMyPay.Com campaign in 2003 for what was dubbed the "Unite Combo": Minimum wage increases, ending youth rates and secure hours. 

The employment relations changes that are being proposed to happen over the next few months include:

• Restoration of statutory rest and meal breaks.

• Reinstatement will be restored as the primary remedy to unfair dismissal.

• Further protections for employees in the “vulnerable industries”

• Restoration of the duty to conclude bargaining unless there is a good reason not to.

• Removal of the MECA opt out where employers can refuse to bargain for a multi-employer collective agreement.

• Restoration of the 30-day rule where for the first 30 days new employees must be employed under terms consistent with the collective agreement.

• Repeal of partial strike pay deductions where employers can garnish wages for low-level industrial action.  Employers have deducted pay for actions such as wearing t-shirts instead of uniforms.

• Restoration of union access without prior employer consent.

New proposals are:

• A requirement to include pay rates in collective agreements.  This is based on recent case law. Pay rates may include pay ranges or methods of calculation.

• A requirement for employers to provide reasonable paid time for union delegates to represent other workers (for example in collective bargaining)

• A requirement for employers to pass on information about unions in the workplace to prospective employees along with a form for the employee to indicate whether they want to be a member.

• Greater protections against discrimination for union members.

One disappointing decision was maintaining the right of small and medium-sized companies with less than 20 employees to continue use 90-day trials with the right to dismiss. This covers about 30% of workers but they are also often already the more vulnerable ones.

Achievements of Unite need recognising

In this blog I also want to note a few achievements of Unite Union over the last 15 years.

I want to do this because these achievements are worth celebrating in their own right.

They have been noted to a degree internationally. Unite representatives have been invited to conferences of unions and political movements in Australia, Brazil, US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Finland over the last few years and have spoken to meetings of members of parliament in four different countries.

Yet we have never been invited to speak to an academic or union conference in New Zealand – including the ones that claim to be left wing. Nor have we been invited to conferences of political parties other than one or two ‘far left” groups.

I was reminded by this because the “6th International Conference on Precarious Work and Vulnerable Worker” is being held in Auckland next week. It is a fascinating programme with many interesting speakers but it has a gap – especially since NZ is the host country – what Unite has done to challenge and overcome precarious work in some of the biggest industries using it.

On one level, I don’t care. I hate to sound like I am whining. I am happy for Unite to be judged on what we do not what we say. But I have come to a conclusion that there is a class bigotry in operation that is disrespectful to the tens of thousands of young workers who have joined Unite and fought heroic battles over the last 15 years which have achieved the results listed below.

  • 50,000 young workers joining Unite. We need to recruit 4000 members a year to maintain our current size of 7000 members.
  • Gaining collective employment agreements in all the major fast food chains – including McDonald’s that cover tens of thousands of workers.
  • We are the only union in the world to have collective agreements with McDonald’s and other fast food companies where the law of that country does not force them to do so.
  • We are the only country to have collective agreements in the fast food industry where membership is completely voluntary.
  • We got rid of youth rates in the fast food industry and were part of a broader campaign that got rid of youth rates for most workers. In the UK youth rates apply to age 25, and in Australia to age 21.
  • We defeated zero hour contracts in the fast food industry and were instrumental in getting them outlawed through a unanimous vote of the NZ parliament under a right-wing National Party-led government.
  • Unite was the first union to identify the widespread theft of annual leave entitlements by almost all employers of workers with irregular hours. We initiated legal action against McDonald’s before MBIE, the government agency responsible, admitted that the problem was widespread and up to several billion dollars was owed to hundreds of thousands of workers in compensation.

For those who want to read a bit more about what Unite has done and how we did it see:

A Short History of Unite Union

How Unite took on fast food companies on zero hour contracts and won